California’s AAPI students deserve more voice

Across California, Asian American and Pacific Islander students comprise 11 percent of the K-12 student population. In Santa Clara County, where I taught fourth grade, that number is nearly three times as high. But though these students make up a significant portion of the children in our schools, when it comes to the conversation around expanding educational opportunity for underserved kids, their voices and faces are glaringly absent.

Much of that gap stems from stereotypes that drive misperceptions of our AAPI community. You’ve heard them before: “Asian kids are good at math,” “All Asians go to college” and “Asian families have school figured out.”

The reality is that the AAPI community is diverse, consisting of more than 48 ethnicities, more than 300 spoken languages, varied socioeconomic status and distinctions across immigration history, generational status, culture and religion. The myth that Asians constitute a “model minority” obscures the nuances and distinctions of these subgroups. Most dangerous, however, is that this lumping together as a successful aggregate masks the needs and unique challenges of so many individuals. Like other communities of color and low-income communities, AAPI communities face very real barriers. According to the U.S. census, many subgroups — including Laotian, Samoan and Tongan — exhibit higher rates of poverty than the national average. The Cambodian, Hmong and Marshallese communities experience poverty at rates more than twice the national number.

In California, 40 percent of Cambodians and Laotians haven’t finished high school and more than 40 percent of Vietnamese, Koreans, Laotians, Hmong, Cambodians, Taiwanese and Chinese speak limited English.

So when we talk about ensuring all kids have access to a great education, creating culturally responsive academic supports, working with communities to help the next generation achieve personal and scholarly success, AAPI students deserve a place in the conversation.

To get there, we can start by strengthening the pipeline of AAPI education leaders. Nationwide, less than 2 percent of teachers identify as AAPI, leaving many of our AAPI students without role models who look like them and share their backgrounds. Though great teachers come from all backgrounds and identities, emerging data that tells us teachers who share the racial or ethnic backgrounds of their students have a profound additional impact.

As a kid, I had just two AAPI teachers from kindergarten to high school graduation. Most of my teachers knew little about my background or experiences, and I struggled to relate to them. It wasn’t until I took an Asian American studies course at the university level that I saw an alignment between my identity and my studies. I often wonder what might be different now if I had had more AAPI teachers who would have incorporated content relevant to my identity. When I entered the classroom as a Teach For America corps member, I was determined to leverage my experiences to help my students understand their own identities, strengths and potential to succeed.

My kids were at the top of my mind a couple weeks ago as I joined over 200 AAPI staff members at Teach For America’s second annual Asian American & Pacific Islander Staff Summit. As participants, we spent three days meeting with social justice leaders in the Los Angeles’ AAPI community. We explored how community organizations, teachers, parents and students can work together as community advocates for greater educational and economic opportunities for their students. Though there is much work to do, I felt empowered walking away from the summit with concrete steps to take. As AAPI leaders, we need to do more to get our kids’ needs on the agenda.

Any stereotype or assumption about a population is a problem — even when, like the “model minority” myth, the characterizations are seen as largely positive. Such stereotypes cause people to overlook or ignore urgent hurdles facing communities, and leave its members without the supports to help improve their circumstances. We can’t ignore our AAPI students. We owe them so much more.

Justin Tandingan

USC Price School ’14 Alumnus

Bay Area TFA ’09 Alumnus 

Director of the AAPI Initiative at Teach for America

1 reply
  1. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    Asian American and Pacific Islander students are a significant part of the population and school student bodies. OK, I get it. They need good schools, good teachers, caring parents, the opportunity to learn and to get help when their learning is impeded. Agreed. So what do you want governments and schools to do? Implement yet one more “affirmative action” program for them? Why not a special, unique “affirmative action program” for every student group identifiable by race, color, ethnicity or religion? Do you believe that to be a logical and reasonable way to improve education for all children? Wherever improvements in schooling are possible, government and schools should provide them to all students, not restricted to selected special, privileged, racial, color, ethnic or religion groups.

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